Straight to the Top
Despite entering the league with very little experience playing football, several athletes have made a successful leap to the NFL
The first time BYU defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi saw Ezekiel Ansah was at the school's indoor track, where the sophomore from Ghana was training as a sprinter. Ansah stood 6′ 6″ and weighed about 250 pounds — not exactly the typical body type for his sport. "I thought, What's he doing running track? He should be playing football," recalls Kaufusi.
Ansah had great speed — he ran the 100-meter dash in 10.91 seconds. But there was one problem: His body was so big that he would sometimes bump into runners in the lanes next to him. Ansah's track coach recommended that he try football instead, and brought him into BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall's office. Ansah had never played football before (or even lifted weights) but his raw athleticism impressed Mendenhall and his staff, and they offered him a walk-on roster spot. "He had an NFL body: the quickness, great lateral movements," says Kaufusi. "It was just a matter of teaching him how to play football."
Ansah learned fast. In three seasons, he went from being a benchwarmer to a special teams standout to a starter on the Cougars' defensive line. After last season, he starred at the 2013 Senior Bowl with 1½ sacks and a forced fumble. Last April, the Detroit Lions selected him with the fifth pick of the NFL draft. This year he is starting at defensive end as a rookie.
Ansah is not the only player on an NFL roster who started playing organized football as an adult. Star tight ends Jimmy Graham (New Orleans Saints) and Julius Thomas (Denver Broncos) both played four years of college basketball before putting on pads as fifth-year seniors. Defensive ends Margus Hunt (Cincinnati Bengals), and Lawrence Okoye (San Francisco 49ers) and linebacker Daniel Adongo (Indianapolis Colts) grew up in foreign countries competing in sports such as rugby and track and field. Adongo and Okoye never played football before joining the NFL this year.
Finding elite athletes has always been the name of the game in big-time football. But it has become clear that teams are increasingly finding that talent in unconventional places.
Starting From Scratch
Athletes being groomed into football players isn't a completely new phenomenon. Throughout the years, college and NFL teams have tried out inexperienced players with varying degrees of success. In the 1960s, the Dallas Cowboys turned college basketball player Cornell Green into an All-Pro defensive back and Olympic gold medal sprinter Bob Hayes into a Hall of Fame wide receiver. Last decade, the San Diego Chargers developed former college basketball star Antonio Gates into an All-Pro tight end. There have been flops as well. Pro wrestler Brock Lesnar didn't fare well in Minnesota Vikings training camp in 2004 and a good number of international athletes, track athletes, and basketball players have given football a try on the college level and failed.
Teaching a player the basics at the highest levels of the game is no small task. BYU coaches had to show Ansah how to get in a proper defensive stance and how to use his hands to push past linemen — skills his teammates had learned years earlier. Ansah also had to build up endurance and get used to hard physical contact. "In the beginning he got hit a few times and we thought, Maybe he'll quit," says Kaufusi. "But he hung in there and battled through those hard times."
Ansah first made his mark on special teams, consistently beating the other players downfield by five to 10 yards. BYU coaches kept working with him at linebacker and defensive end, and he eventually became a starter at end. Ansah began to get attention from pro scouts with super athletic plays — blowing past linemen and putting pressure on quarterbacks. His 4½ sacks as a senior is not an eye-popping number, but it was clear that this raw athlete was improving in football at a rapid rate.
As a member of the Lions, Ansah is continuing to learn the game, playing next to star defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. He has struggled at times but was second on the team with three sacks through eight games. "All rookies are going to have ups and downs," Lions coach Jim Schwartz told reporters in late October. "But we're happy with him. He's going to be a very good player and has been a very productive player for us this year."
Ansah can look to Graham and Thomas for inspiration. The 6′ 7″ Graham played forward for four years on the University of Miami's basketball team. He had an offer to play pro basketball in Spain, but decided to give football a try after impressing former Hurricanes and Cleveland Browns QB Bernie Kosar during some informal drills. Graham hadn't played organized football since his freshman year of high school.
Graham suited up for 13 games in 2009 (with just one start) for Miami, showing glimpses of his strong playmaking ability with five touchdowns. Saints scouts liked what they saw, and New Orleans selected him in the third round of the 2010 draft. Graham was a backup as a rookie but kept absorbing the details of the offense, especially during summer workouts. Through November 9, he had the most receiving yards of any tight end over the past three seasons.
Graham's basketball experience has helped him excel on the gridiron. In the Saints' November 3 game against the New York Jets, he used his body to "box out" cornerback Antonio Cromartie, just as he did grabbing rebounds in basketball. The result: a 10-yard touchdown. "Most basketball players have great footwork and great hand-eye coordination, so while I went from being a shorter power forward to being one of the tallest people on the field, I still have great body awareness," he told SI.com last year. "Those things help to really attack a ball when it's in the air."
The Broncos' Thomas has a similar story. As a 6′ 5″ forward he helped Portland State reach the NCAA tournament twice in four seasons. But instead of playing pro hoops abroad, he chose to give football a shot as a fifth-year senior. In one season, he had 29 catches for 453 yards — again, not amazing stats, but enough to show that he was grasping the game. The Broncos selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. After catching just one pass over his first two pro seasons, Thomas has blossomed in 2013 with eight TDs in his first eight games, becoming a key target for Peyton Manning.
Portland State receivers coach Steve Cooper isn't surprised by Thomas's success. He says Thomas studied and practiced hard, and there was a benefit to him learning the game late. "Coming from the basketball court, he didn't really have a whole bunch of bad football habits," says Cooper. "He didn't really have any habits. It was almost like working with a blank slate. Pretty much everything we taught him, those were the habits he created. They were good ones rather than learning the wrong things in junior high or high school."
Thomas also had two strong role models in Tony Gonzalez and Gates, both former college basketball players who went on to become NFL superstar tight ends. (Gonzalez was a two-sport star at Cal; Gates didn't even play college football.) "We got [game film] on those guys and he was able to watch them work," says Cooper. "That's who he modeled his game after and I think that helped him a bunch."
What do these stories mean for the future of the NFL? For one, the tremendous success of Gates, Graham, and Thomas will likely lead to more basketball players converting to football, especially power forwards who are too short for the NBA but are the perfect size to play tight end. And the quick ascent of Ansah and defensive end Margus Hunt, a track star from Estonia who went on to play four seasons of college football at SMU and was a 2013 second-round pick of the Bengals, could be the start of a larger international movement in the NFL. The league has been playing regular-season games in London since 2007 and there has been a steady growth in the popularity of the sport in Europe. "Because the game is expanding throughout the globe, that will continue to bring more guys in to [football]," says Jay Hayes, the Bengals' defensive line coach who has been working with Hunt. "We're always looking for the best athletes we can get."
But make no mistake, the examples of all the players in this story are very special. It's a rare person who has an NFL-type body and explosive athleticism, along with a strong work ethic and the smarts to master the highest levels of the sport in a short time. If Ansah fulfills his potential and leads the Lions to big things, his story of going from being an immigrant from Ghana to a football superstar could transcend NFL circles.
"Who knows," says Coach Kaufusi, "Maybe it'll be a movie someday."
Photos: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GRAHAM), GEOFF BURKE/USA TODAY SPORTS (ANSAH), ROD MAR FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (THOMAS), SCOTT KELBY/ZUMAPRESS.COM (GATES)